By Heidi S. De Jonge
There is a place I like to go in Kingston. I call it my horizon place. Driving or cycling down Bayridge Drive, I come up over the last hill and I see it: the horizon of Lake Ontario cutting a line in the sky. I see it and I draw a breath. Sometimes I pull over and sit next to it. I am stabilized by the straightness of the line and I am expanded by the beauty of the water below it and the sky above it. To change a noun to a verb, I am horizoned.
These horizoning breath-draws happened several times as I read Tim Keller’s book on the gospel of Mark: King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus.
As Keller broke open the story of the healing of the paralytic and the healing of the woman with the issue of bleeding and the raising of Jairus’s daughter, I was horizoned: “When you go to Jesus for help,” Keller writes, “you get from him far more than you had in mind.” When, in his comments on Jesus’ transfiguration, Keller named worship as the antidote for our all-consuming need for approval, I was horizoned. When he, along with Andrew Walls, named fragility and vulnerability as the heart of Christianity, I was horizoned. When he titled one of his sections, “The Beauty of Darkness,” I was horizoned.
And then, Keller told several stories of sacrificial love as reflections of Jesus’ sacrificial love. “Jesus didn’t have to die despite God’s love; he had to die because of God’s love. And it had to be this way because all life-changing love is substitutionary sacrifice” (emphasis Keller’s).
For a minute there, I was horizoned. I thought that I may have finally found an articulation of the substitutionary nature of the atonement that worked and resonated for me.
But then I started sharing my excitement with my friends and with my husband, and the more I said it out loud, the more the words turned to dust in my mouth. Keller writes, “Anybody who has ever done anything that made a difference for us – a parent, a teacher, a mentor, a friend, a spouse—sacrificed in some way, stepped in and accepted some hardship so that we would not get hit with it ourselves.” The straight line of the horizon sloped.
He repeats this conviction several times: “All love, all real, life-changing love, is substitutionary sacrifice. You have never loved a broken person, you have never loved a guilty person, you have never loved a hurting person except through substitutionary sacrifice.”
I do not deny the substitutionary nature of the atonement. I confess it. I believe it. I preach it. I wrestle with it every Lent and it finds its way into many of my sermons. And yet…
On Good Friday afternoon this year, I found myself weeping – weeping because I do not understand substitutionary atonement. The more I think I understand it, the more I read about it, the less I understand it, the less satisfied I am with it, the less horizoned I feel when I speak of it from the pulpit.
As I shared this with a few close people on Holy Weekend, I found a deeper peace. Horizon, I suppose. My husband listened and, when prompted, asked excellent coaching questions. My father-in-law, who is a recently retired minister, promised that someday I will be able to rest in the unknowing. My friend reminded me of my core value of embracing mystery. My six-year-old daughter, who isn’t used to seeing her mommy weep quite so much, brought me a plate of food: a banana, graham cracker, a carrot, and some grapes. I was horizoned.
I also found horizon in re-reading my notes from Scot McKnight’s book, A Community Called Atonement. McKnight writes about five atonement theories and how all are true and necessary and can be drawn on at different times and for different reasons. Penal substitution? Yes… AND… “If we limit atonement to [penal substitutionary atonement], we have an atonement that is nothing more than important theodicy. It explains how God can eliminate sin justly, but it only explains the wrath-to-death problem, and that is not all there is to atonement.”
There are so many ways of understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection. There are so many ways of knowing the love of God. It is simply not the case that all of life-changing love is substitutionary sacrifice. Parents, teachers, mentors, friends, and spouses have made a difference for me in my life, not just because they accepted a hardship in my place. They have made differences through their celebration, their listening, their laughter, and their example! The same is true (and more true) of God. And I trust the broken, guilty, or hurting people that I have loved can say the same about the difference I have made in their lives… the difference God has made in their lives.
In his introduction, Keller speaks of his conversion: “Though as a youth I had believed that the Bible was the Word of the Lord, I had not personally met the Lord of the Word. As I read the Gospels, he became real to me.” I celebrate this for Tim Keller. I celebrate this for me as well—that my faith is horizoned not in any book, not even in the bible. It is in Jesus that I am horizoned. Finally. Fully. Completely.